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One On 1: Ad Maven George Lois Toughened By Upbringing

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George Lois is known for his passion and creativity in the advertising world, in the magazine business, and on the basketball court. Now, Lois goes One on 1 with Budd Miskin.

At 77, what advertising maven George Lois really wants is to keep playing his beloved basketball.

And, after a few minutes with him out on the court, you quickly learn that he doesn't just play "for fun."

"When guys don't know me and they're pairing up they say, 'I'll take the old guy,' and everybody on the bench says 'don't let you hear him say that,'" says Lois.

Another fact about the man behind campaigns for XEROX, USA Today and Tommy Hilfiger is that he has no filter.

Of his wife of 57 years, Rosemarie, Lois says: "She wouldn't let me touch her, but we were with each other two years before that. We touched but . . . she grew up Catholic."

The lack of a filter goes for Lois's language, too, off camera and on – as in the time he defied a major in the Army.

"He said, 'A New Yorker, huh? New York Jew fag nigger lover, huh?' And I said, 'why don't you go f**k yourself, major?'" recalled Lois. "I did 15 weeks company punishment as a result."

Lois has used that style in advertising for 50 years.

He says when he first started in the business, advertising was dominated by WASPs. Lois was a Bronx guy, toughened by growing up Greek in an Irish neighborhood.

"I used my New Yorkness and my Greekness as a hammer," he says.

He says he used that hammer, and occasionally intimidation, to push through his ideas.

"My job is to sell, sell magazines, and everything I do. That's my DNA," Lois says. "If it wasn't successful, I would be the biggest a**hole in the world with my attitude."

In 1964, he worked on the New York Senate campaign of Bobby Kennedy. But at the time, his most political work could be found on the covers of Esquire Magazine, now exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art.

Among the covers: then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey as a puppet of then-President Lyndon Johnson. Lois later saw the cover on the vice president's wall, and told Humphrey he created it.

"He said, 'You son of a bitch!'," Lois recalls. "I said, 'Why is it hanging there?' And he said, 'Because it's probably right.'"

Another provocative cover featured Lieutenant William "Rusty" Calley, a U.S. Army officer found guilty of ordering the My Lai Massacre of civilians during the Vietnam War. Lois is a Korean War veteran, and he convinced Calley to pose with Asian children.

"He posed somberly," explains Lois. "And I said 'Okay, great, great, Rusty, give us a sh**-eating grin. Bingo, that's the shot.' I'd do anything to get the job done right, because I knew I was doing something really important."

Lois is nothing if not passionate. Usually that passion comes across loudly.

But there is one topic which turns Lois quiet and introspective. His older son, Harry, was 20 years old when he died in 1978 of a heart disorder.

"It remains beyond a catastrophe," he says. "Every second of my life I think about him; every second of my life I think about it. I don't think there's a heaven, but he's with me all the time."

Another love of Lois' life is art.

Thanks to his success, he's been able to collect some pretty interesting pieces in his apartment.

Growing up, he loved sports and drawing, eventually attending the old High School of Music and Art.

"I trained myself to sleep with a couple of hours, and then get up two to three hours and then go back to sleep for maybe an hour and a half. That's how I have been all my life," he says. "I used to draw in the middle of the night."

As a Greek kid in the predominantly Irish neighborhood of Kingsbridge, Lois frequently had to defend himself – and once when a kid said something derogatory about Greeks, Lois punched him out.

"My father comes home and my mother is losing her cookies and my father says to me, speaking Greek to me, asks 'Why did you do it?'" recalls Lois. "And I explained to him and he said, in Greek, 'Good boy.'"

Lois watched his father battle racism after hiring a young black man to work in his florist shop.

"He hired a young black man to work at the store and do some deliveries with the truck and people came in and said, 'Mr. Lois, you don't want any blacks in this neighborhood,'" Lois remembers. "My father had to kind of withstand all of these things and I think that taught me something. I think it's in my DNA, you know, you don't take any s**t. You don't take any. It's not only taking s**t, it's about being unfair to other people, you know."

Those lessons may have actually resulted in Lois fighting in the Korean War. He was stationed in Texas, playing on an Army basketball team.

But when the one black player on the team was not allowed to play in a game in Louisiana, Lois refused to play.

"We got back to the Fort Sam in Houston and, two days later, I got my orders cut to go to Korea," he said.

After the war, Lois says he passed up a half-basketball scholarship at Syracuse to study art at Pratt, where he met another pretty talented student, his wife Rosemarie.

And then he began a career as the self described "enfant terrible" of the advertising world. Like the almost 100 covers he did for Esquire Magazine, he was provocative, but always with his eye on selling the product.

Among his most audacious campaigns was linking a then-newcomer, Tommy Hilfiger, with the most famous designers in the land.

"People easily figured out Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein, and nobody knew who Tommy Hilfiger was. And so there was no truth to it, but it became a self-fulfilling prophecy," he explained.

In the early 1980s, when MTV was young and struggling, Lois says he convinced rock stars to look into a camera and say "I want my MTV."

"A cable operator in San Francisco calls [MTV creator] Bob Pittman, gets him in his office, and says 'Get that f**king commercial off the air,'" says Lois. "Pittman says, 'I'll take it off right away.' Then the operator says, 'By the way Pittman, I'll take it.' 'Take what?' asked Pittman. 'I'll take MTV,' responded the operator. 'Why?' said Pittman. 'Cause I'm getting thousands of phone calls,' said the operator."

Lois is always looking to sell – often a product, sometimes an idea.

In the 1970s, Lois organized the campaign to free former fighter Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, whom Lois felt had been unjustly convicted on murder charges.

"All my life I've said and I believe that creativity can solve almost any problem," says Lois. "You know, the creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, you know, can overcome everything."

But perhaps all you need to know about George Lois can be learned by watching him play basketball.

Even though he's talking about his favorite game, he could just as well be talking about his long career.

"I don't know what's going to happen when I can't do it anymore," says Lois. "I set a time limit with the guys I play with. They said, 'What?' I said, 'Yeah! I'm 77. I'm going to quit when I'm 85.'"

I'm betting he won't.

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